Today in Feminist History: Tennessee’s Ratification Is No Longer Crucial (September 21, 1920)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.


September 21, 1920: Any claims that Tennessee’s ratification of the 19th Amendment was invalid, and which die-hard anti-suffragists had been hoping to use to block its implementation, became irrelevant today.

The State of Connecticut has unquestionably ratified the woman suffrage amendment, so even without Tennessee there would still be 36 valid ratifications, all that are necessary for it to withstand ANY court challenge! 

Though the State’s action came a lot later than any of us would have liked, it is still very much appreciated. There was a major campaign in May to get the Governor to call a special session of the legislature so that Connecticut could become the 36th and final State needed to put the Susan B. Anthony Amendment into the Constitution. But despite pressure from the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association and other “Votes for Women” advocates who came here from all 47 other States, Governor Holcomb refused to call the legislature back into session after it had finished its regular business and adjourned until next year, so victory was postponed until August 18th, when Tennessee had the honor of putting the amendment over the top on that historic day. But things have certainly changed in a big way: Connecticut has now ratified three times this week!

The first approval was on September 14th, when the House voted 216 to 11 in favor, and the Senate was unanimous in its approval. But the special session had not been called for the purpose of ratifying the suffrage amendment, so there was some question about whether the approval was valid. In order to avoid giving the “antis” another ratification to challenge in court, a second special session was called for today, with ratification included among the issues for action. The Senate once again gave its unanimous approval, with the House voting 194 to 9 in favor. 

That seemed to settle the matter, but a bit later someone suggested that just to be sure there could be no legal challenge, there ought to be a formal, joint ratification resolution attached to, and covering the ratification document sent to the Secretary of State in Washington, D.C. After adjourning today’s first session, and being immediately summoned back for another one, a quick unanimous vote in the Senate and one more approval in the House by 159 to 3 was easily accomplished. (Things do go better with practice, and Connecticut has now become uniquely experienced in the art of ratification, having done it three times in seven days.)

Whatever frustrations and unpleasant feelings suffragists nationwide may have had about Connecticut (actually, just its Governor) earlier this year are now gone, and there’s praise tonight for the aptly nicknamed “Constitution State,” and even for Holcomb, who called the three sessions.

The anti-suffragists’ traveling courtroom circus has been filing legal actions from Washington, D.C., to Nashville, challenging the validity of Tennessee’s ratification, but their antics are now just an amusing sideshow thanks to today’s action. There had been some real concern before today that anti-suffrage judges in States where women cannot vote without the 19th Amendment might take these challenges seriously, and stop the process of registering women in their jurisdictions until all challenges are decided by the Supreme Court long after Election Day in November. 

But now that Tennessee’s ratification is no longer crucial, there is no reasonable basis upon which to claim that the 19th Amendment was improperly ratified, and therefore it should continue to be in full effect, proclaiming that: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” and that “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

So, though September 21, 1920, may not be as historic as August 18th, when the 19th Amendment was ratified by the required 36 of 48 States, or August 26th, when the Secretary of State officially proclaimed it a part of the U.S. Constitution, today is still an important one in the march toward women’s equality, as the last potential barrier to full implementation of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in time for the nationwide elections in November has been removed!


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About

David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.